A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
—Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao-Tzu
A number of years ago, while discussing an issue with my spiritual director, I suddenly burst out, “I wish God would just give me a recipe for my life.”
To this, the saintly elder nun replied, “What kind of God would that be?”
This answer caught me off guard, and since then I have pondered its meaning many times. Certainly God gives us various guidelines for the spiritual journey, but God also gives us the free will to choose the many ways in which we can express our love.
Would I really wish that God decided everything for me? Wouldn’t that make me a puppet on a string or a computer that was just programmed to act in a predetermined manner?
If one believes, with Saint John the Apostle, that God is love, or at least believes in living according to the ways of compassion, then it follows that we are given freedom in order to choose the many ways in which to express a healthy love for God, self, and one another.
What’s the next step?
When I feel a little “stuck” in a project or indecisive about something, I consider a question I first heard about in a spiritual direction training course: What’s the next step?
Retreat leader Pierre Wolff describes this method in his book Discernment: The Art of Choosing Well (Liguori, Revised edition, 2003, pages 27-30). Focusing on just one step forward in love can help us keep from giving up a seemingly monumental project before we even begin. One step at a time also keeps us from expecting ourselves to have everything figured out and the decision completed within an unreasonable time frame.
I also find that simply taking one simple step helps me keep from putting off something indefinitely. I can sort one pile of clutter rather than set myself up to clear out all the cobwebs of my house in a day (an unreasonable goal that is destined for failure). If I am feeling “stuck” in a writing project, I can ask myself, what is the one thing I could do today to move it along? If I’m experiencing a strained relationship, I can select one little way to reach out to the person with compassion.
A journey of a thousand miles. . .
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” This wise saying is attributed to Lao-Tzu, a major spiritual figure in Taoism. (Some say that the saying originated with Confucius.)
I believe that it is true that the little tasks we do, the little decisions to love, the day-to-day ways we treat each other, gradually add up to something tremendous, as Mother Teresa was fond of saying, “something beautiful for God.”
However, there is another meaning to this saying that is not readily apparent in the English translation. According to the website Quotationspage.com, the original Chinese proverb can also be translated into English in this way: “The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet,” or “Even the longest journey must begin where you stand.” It is explained that this translation means that actions are best when they arise out of stillness.
That means, when you are thinking about a choice, or doing some action, stop to think about it first. Take a walk alone to think it over, meditate, mull it over a bit in your journal, or spend some time praying about it. Listen to where the Spirit is moving in your heart.
Hmmm… Isn’t that what Jesus did when he went out in the desert to pray, before beginning his public ministry, before selecting his ministry companions?
Just for today, let us ask ourselves, with the attitude of compassion, what’s the next step?
For reflection: What do you find helps you make good decisions?